Olive Oil…and Artichokes

olive oil bottles

A selection of olive oils in my kitchen

I spent a week in Italy last month learning about and tasting olive oil. The trip was sponsored by the Italian Trade Association as part of an effort to draw attention to superior oils from around the country and to olive farmers and oil producers who aren’t mired in controversy. As you may well know, allegations of fraud, mislabeling, Mafia ties, and more, have swirled around the olive oil industry for years. Not surprisingly, the largest producers appear to be the biggest offenders.

The ones I met seemed to me the opposite of that ~ many of them small producers or farmers and their families who pour their heart and soul into their work and whose oil is unimpugnable. They were among 100 finalists gathered in Perugia for the 24th annual Ercole Olivario competition recognizing outstanding olive oils. Winners announced at the awards ceremony included a new producer ~ a young woman from Sardegna ~ as well as producers from Lazio and Umbria, Abruzzo, Calabria, Liguria, Puglia, and Tuscany.

olive oil dinner

At a dinner honoring finalists in the Ercole Olivario Awards competition

Afterwards, guests were invited to taste the winning and finalist oils, which ranged in style from soft and buttery (Liguria) to grassy (Umbria) to intensely fruity (Sardegna). What I wanted to do, though, was to grab five or six bottles off the display stands and stash them in my suitcase to bring home. Because the reality is that most of these stellar oils are not available in the U.S.; the makers simply don’t produce enough for export.

Is it possible to get high quality olive oil in the U.S.? Of course, but you have to know what to look for. For example, while the words “extra-virgin” and “cold-pressed” may sound impressive and even reassuring, they are no guarantee that the oil you are buying is good. I’ve posted a bit on this subject before, and I’m offering additional tips below.

The biggest question, of course, is: Does it matter to you? This may sound flip, but that’s not how it is intended. What I mean is: would you pay $20, $30, or even $40 for a 500-ml bottle of olive oil? Are you willing to learn to read labels closely, look for dates in tiny print, and interpret acronyms and vague language?

Umbria landscape

Olive groves in the Umbrian countryside

It’s a complicated and confusing topic, to say the least. But for me the answer is yes. I use olive oil daily, not only for dressing salad or drizzling on soup, but for everyday cooking, and even for baking. Since it is such an integral part of mine and my family’s diet, it makes no sense to use a product that might be cut with dyes, chemicals, or lower-quality oil.

If you really want to delve into the topic, I highly recommend Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s book Virgin Territory, which goes into detail about how olives are grown and harvested and how oil is pressed; plus it explains at length the meaning of terms such as extra-virgin ~ a measure of acidity. The book also provides instructions on how to taste oil.

Also, find a trusted source. Locally I rely on my friend Luanne Savino O’Loughlin, who manages Olio2Go, a shop (and online store) that carries top-quality Italian olive oil. I also trust the folks at Gustiamo, a New York-based importer and retailer of best-quality Italian products.

Following are some rules I’ve found useful in choosing olive oil:

  1. START with the words “extra-virgin.” Anything other than that is not even worth looking at. Extra-virgin, by the way, refers to the percentage of oleic acid in the oil. To qualify as extra-virgin, the level of oleic acid cannot surpass 0.8 grams per 100 grams of oil (or 0.8%). The best oils, however, have a very low percentage ~ between 0.1 and 0.2 grams per 100 grams of oil. Since you can’t test this yourself (unless you’re really, really ambitious) you need to find a brand or producer you trust.
  2. BEWARE big brands: Unfortunately, the most recognized names also happen to be those embroiled in allegations of fraud and mislabeling. I stopped buying these brands some years ago because their labels are confusing and I’m just not sure what I’m getting.
  3. DON’T dismiss store brands: Stores including Costco, Wegmans, and Whole Foods, sell decent (if not great), affordable oil under their brand names. However, the levels of oleic acid in these oils, while still falling withing the range for extra-virgin, may be higher than that of best-quality oils.
  4. READ the labels to see when the oil was made, where the olives are from, and whether the letters “DOP” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) or “DOPG” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta Garantita) are included. These terms mean that the oil has met certain national standards for quality.
  5. LOOK for clues in words. Terms such as “packed in Italy” or “bottled in Italy” likely mean that the olives, and maybe even the oil, come from outside of Italy. If you read the small print, you will sometimes see listed the countries of origin for the olives.
  6. COLOR is not necessarily an indication of quality. Some fresh oils are very green, others are more golden-green. It depends on the type of olive and how ripe the olives are when pressed. Older oils, however, tend to be gold, with no hint of green.
  7. MOST experts recommend buying oil in heavy, dark-green bottles. Sunlight is olive oil’s enemy and oil left on the counter in a clear glass bottle can degrade pretty quickly.
  8. TASTE and take note of the aromas and flavors. Freshly mown grass, tomatoes, artichokes, buttery, lemon, and (of course) olives are among the notes you’ll find in a good oil. If the oil tastes musty or flabby or there is even a whiff of petroleum (think Vaseline), toss it.

You’ll find more helpful facts about olive oil here.

artichokes horiz

And now, on to the artichokes. You might think it an odd segue, but olive oil and artichokes have plenty in common. They are expensive (this side of the Atlantic, anyway) and they complement each other beautifully. Like olive oil, artichokes have a “green” or vegetal flavor and a bitter note.

Artichokes were all over the markets and on restaurant menus in Umbria and Rome when I was there. What a bummer to come back to the scarred gray specimens in the supermarkets here around DC. Then, just when I was about to give up, I found a pretty good crop at my local Whole Foods.

I made carciofi alla romana ~ artichokes braised in olive oil, water, and wine in the Roman style ~ using a recipe from Rachel Roddy’s new book My Kitchen in Rome as my guide. It is absolutely one of my favorite ways to enjoy artichokes. The slow simmering on the stovetop turns the inhospitable vegetable into something completely different, tender enough to cut with a spoon.

Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of cleaning artichokes. All you need is a sharp or serrated knife to saw off the tough tops of the leaves (I used my tomato knife) and a good paring knife for trimming. And the will to keep paring away until all the tough parts are gone. You’ll end up with a giant pile of leaves, and it seems like a lot of waste, but there’s nothing appealing about those tough bits.

artichokes trimmed carciofi horizontal

Use a pot with high sides to cook the artichokes if you have one. This allows you to place them vertically in the pot, stems up. Since my pot was too shallow I was forced to lop off the stems and cook them alongside the chokes. Not nearly as elegant. I used a good, not-too-intense olive oil from Sicily (2015 harvest; sold under the Whole Foods label) to braise the artichokes; then right before serving I gave them a splash of spicy, slightly bitter Umbrian olive oil to bring out that “green” flavor.

Makes 4 servings

Carciofi alla Romana | Roman-Style Artichokes

This quintessentially Roman dish calls for seasoning and braising whole trimmed artichokes. Tamed by the slow simmer ~ here in a combination of water, wine, and olive oil ~ the spiny vegetable turns buttery and tender enough to cut with a spoon. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil at serving time to echo the artichoke's own buttery, sweet-bitter flavors. Recipe adapted slightly from My Kitchen in Rome: Recipes and Notes on Italian Cooking, by Rachel Alice Roddy (Grand Central Life & Style 2016).

Ingredients

  • 4 large globe artichokes, with stems still attached
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

Instructions

Squeeze the lemon into a bowl of cold water. In a small bowl, mix together the garlic, parsley, and mint. Add a generous pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper.

Clean the artichokes: pull the tough outer leaves downward and snap them off at the base. Continue until you are left with the tightly closed center leaves. Using a sharp paring kinfe, pare away the tough green layer of flesh from the base and stem of the artichokes. Cut about 1 inch off the tops of the chokes. Dip them in the acidulated water as you go to prevent browning.

Open up the artichoke flowers and use a small spoon to scrape out the fuzzy choke inside. Press some of the herb-and-garlic mixture into each cavity and between the leaves. Arrange the articokes, stems upward, in a heavy-bottomed pot tall enough to accommodate their height. If you don't have a tall enough pot (I don't) you'll need to cut off a portion of the the stems; just toss these into the pot with the artichokes.

Add the wine, olive oil, and enough water to come one-third of the way up the artichokes. Cover the pot with a damp tea towel or a damp doubled-over piece of paper towel and put the lid on over the towel. Bring the edges of the towel back over the top of the pot. Set the pan over medium-low heat and bring to a simmer. Cook at a gentle simmer for about 40 minutes, reducing the heat to low if necessary. The artichokes are ready when a fork easily pierces the thickest part of the stem near the heart.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the artichokes to a serving plate, stems upward and let them cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking juices and pour these over the artichokes just before serving. Drizzle a thread of olive oil over all and serve.

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25 Responses to Olive Oil…and Artichokes

  1. Marilena @ marilenaskitchen.com April 16, 2016 at 2:18 pm #

    Domenica, there is so much great information in this post! I stopped buying these “recognized” brand long time ago, just because of stories that I read about their mass production….. It is better to buy from smaller producers and of course, look for the DOP label!

    • Domenica Marchetti April 17, 2016 at 10:27 am #

      Thanks Marilena. There’s a lot more to know, of course, but I hope this is a helpful start.

  2. Paola April 16, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    Really useful information about olive oils in this post, I had no idea about all the fraud and mislabelling. I buy Australian EVOO for cooking, fewer food miles for me at least, good quality and no labelling issues. I buy fairly expensive Italian EVOO for consuming raw, but it is not that easy to find.

    • Domenica Marchetti April 17, 2016 at 10:31 am #

      Paola, you make a really important point about food miles. Here in the U.S. we have California olive oil. From what I understand, a fair amount of it is produced using super high density farming methods. That’s a whole other story, and I haven’t yet figured out which side I come down on…I’m surprised to know it’s not that easy to find good Italian EVOO in your part of the world. There seem to be so many wonderful Italian spots in your IG feed. I’ve said this before but one day I must make the trip over and see Australia!

      • Mary in AZ May 23, 2016 at 7:15 pm #

        In Phoenix Arizona, we have the Olive Mill (actually located in Queen Creek which is south of the city). The sell at many of the farmers markets. check out their website: https://www.queencreekolivemill.com/

  3. Laney April 16, 2016 at 5:20 pm #

    You must have had so much fun! Great information about olive oil and it really is important to know what you’re buying. If someone hasn’t had the “real” thing, the price can be a shock. But once someone learns about and tastes authentic extra virgin olive oil, it all comes into perspective. Ortensia Blu sells olive oil from Lake Garda and I love the subtleties in the flavors, tastes and aromas of the oils from all the different regions.

    • Domenica Marchetti April 17, 2016 at 10:33 am #

      I’d love to try olive oil from Lake Garda and see how it compares to oil from other regions. That part of Italy is so lovely. And yes, really good olive oil does seem prohibitively expensive at first. But it takes a lot to produce it. And as far as I can tell, those who do it are not making a killing. It is not a high-profit venture by any means.

  4. Phyllis@Oracibo April 16, 2016 at 7:07 pm #

    Really good and very informative post Domenica! As we live in Canada, it’s out of the question to bring in Italian oil from either of the two importers you mentioned, cost-wise. But we were very lucky indeed, to find someone living here in Vancouver who actually imports directly from a farm in Amelia, Umbria. Thank goodness! The oil we get every winter is the new oil and is so fragrant, grassy and peppery! We too use oil every day in our cooking. It’s not cheap as you mentioned in your post, but well worth it. We just don’t trust most oil from the shops! Every time I see the oil in clear bottles I shudder! And if there is no harvest date…not interested in looking any further!

    • Domenica Marchetti April 17, 2016 at 10:37 am #

      I was lucky to taste numerous oils from Umbria. I agree ~ they’ve got loads of flavor and character. My friend Luanne at Olio2Go did mention to me that there are some producers who use clear bottles because they are proud of the color of their oil and want to show it off, but the oil is meant to be used right away, and not to sit out on the countertop. If, however, I see oil in a clear bottle on a supermarket shelf, I take a pass.

  5. anyone4curryandotherthings April 17, 2016 at 3:05 am #

    thank you for your great information on olive oil. I live in South India and unfortunately the really good oil is not available, have to travel to Italy soon again – hopefully :), Carina

    • Domenica Marchetti April 17, 2016 at 10:40 am #

      Welcome Carina, thanks for stopping by. I always wonder what the supply of Italian ingredients is like in other parts of the world. And I can’t think of a better excuse to travel to Italy than to pick up some good EVOO. Cheers, D

  6. Rosa Jeanne Mayland April 17, 2016 at 9:33 am #

    A great recipe. Those artichokes must taste heavenly.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    http://www.reveriesbramblesscribbles.com/blog/

  7. elisa April 18, 2016 at 11:07 am #

    Great information Domenica! . I buy Extra virgin cold pressed olive oil packed in Italy at Trader Joe’s, I go with my taste reaction, sometimes the same oil has a blander taste, but the last one I got taste soooo good. I use so much of this oil that sometimes I think it will start dripping from my skin!. Ciao and grazie mille for the carciofi alla romana recipe.

    • Domenica Marchetti April 19, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

      Thanks for bringing up Traders Joe’s Elisa. I’ve gotten some good, affordable oil there over the years. Taste is the best way to assess whether oil is good or to your liking. I really feel that the more people taste the more they will understand the flavor(s) of good olive oil.

  8. Frank Fariello April 19, 2016 at 8:33 am #

    What a useful article, Domenica! And timely, too. I’ve been in a quandary myself about this whole olive oil business. I was upset to read that Filippo Berio was one of the offenders. Not that I thought it such a great oil (even before the scandal) but it was my grandmother’s brand. That made it a sentimental favorite. Ah well…

    Like you, olive oil is my main cooking medium and ideally I really need a moderately priced but authentic brand for everyday use, along with a higher quality brand for salads and finishing dishes with the proverbial “filo d’olio”. I was happy to see you endorse the course that I’ve settled on, at least for the moment: Costco or Whole Foods store brands for the everyday option. I rather like Frantoio, a Sicilian olive oil, as my “special” oil. There’s also an olive oil shop in downtown Bethesda where I go from time to time. It mostly sells California oils.

    Curious to know your views on an aspect I don’t think you mentioned: filtered vs unfiltered. (I’m a big fan of the former.)

    • Phyllis@Oracibo April 19, 2016 at 6:43 pm #

      Frank…we get the Costco Tuscan oil here…it’s got the harvest date and is quite decent for everyday use. We save the Umbrian stuff for dribbling, bread and when a pasta sauce is all about the flavour of the oil and for salads and vegs. of course!

    • Domenica Marchetti April 19, 2016 at 10:03 pm #

      Frank, not sure you saw my reply (below). I meant to post it as a reply to you but it ended up as a stand-alone comment.

  9. Domenica Marchetti April 19, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

    Thanks Frank! I remember my mom having big tins of Berio in the pantry. That was a long time ago and I’ll bet the oil was much better back then. I’ve heard of Frantoio but I don’t know that I’ve tried it. As for the California oils, I’m not sure where I stand on those just yet, as (I think) they are the product of super high density plantings, a method that was devised in Spain in the ’90s. That’s a subject for a whole other blog post! I admit that I’ve had some very good tasting Calif oil, though. And yes, gotta keep it affordable for everyday consumption.

  10. paninigirl April 19, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

    Thank you for writing this post. I worked for a small California olive oil producer for four years and it was amazing how many customers had no clue about olive oil. Their product is stellar and even though I no longer work for them, I highly recommend their oils.

    • Domenica Marchetti April 19, 2016 at 9:06 pm #

      Janie, I’ve been enjoying your posts from Lucca! I wonder if you wouldn’t mind sharing the name of the CA producer so that we might look for their oils? Also, do you know anything about the way olives are cultivated in CA? I’m curious to learn more about it. Thanks!

      • paninigirl April 29, 2016 at 10:52 am #

        Domenica-it’s Temecula Olive Oil Company and their product is really quite good. It’s a small farm located outside of Temecula CA. They press their olives within 8 hours of picking. If you’re ever out this way you can take a tour of their farm. I did a post on them on my blog a while back where you can see a little bit about their operation. Also went to a great Outstanding in the Field dinner there a few years ago.

  11. Chiara April 20, 2016 at 3:27 pm #

    La più importante rassegna sugli oli extra vergini si tiene a Trieste ogni anno, sarebbe bello se una volta venissi a visitarla, è veramente il top in Italia, partecipano i migliori produttori ! Un abbraccio

  12. ciaochowlinda April 20, 2016 at 6:12 pm #

    What an informative post Domenica. I use extra virgin olive oil from Casale Sonnino, the place owned by my late friend Clo Treves, whom your mom knew. Two of her children, Claire (who lives in NY and delivers the oil down to Princeton) and George, who lives at the farm, now run it, and they produce excellent oil. Like almost all Central Italy olive oil producers, they suffered two years ago during the fruit fly infestation, and I stocked up on what they had to try to get me through. Unfortunately, I ran out of my last tin a couple of months ago, but Claire just reported that their latest batch of olive oil won second place last week at the International olive oil competition in NYC. I can’t wait to get my hands (and taste buds) on it and use really superior olive oil again. As you know, it’s not inexpensive, but to me it’s worth it. Kudos to Olio2Go and Beatrice at Gustiamo for selling wonderful olive oils too, as you mentioned.

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